Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Typhoon Tales (Episode 1)

Kadena AB, Okinawa - the area around "radar hill." (Google Maps)
Long, long ago, shortly after the last Ice Age, I was a young(ish) airman, stationed on the island of Okinawa. It was my very first "real" Air Force assignment (everything prior to this was training) and, truth be told, I was not happy to be there. In true military fashion I had volunteered for Germany and received an assignment to Thailand.

Furious I was, foolish I later felt when one of my instructors told me a few things about Thailand. Seems it was an assignment to look forward to. However comma...

Seems that the military was "drawing down" in Southeast Asia, the war was (for us anyway) over. Saigon had fallen on the 30th of April, 1975. Exactly 13 days before I reported for my very first day of active duty.

So the American F-4 Phantoms at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base were to be sent away. The maintenance folks, aircrew, support folks, everybody was leaving Udorn with the jets. Of course, in the infinite wisdom of the Air Force, all those awaiting orders to go to Udorn would be going someplace else with them. As if they were already at Udorn. After all, Udorn was closing down.

Where were a lot of those jets and personnel going? Why to Okinawa. So let's send those slated for Udorn to Kadena. Wonderful.

I went from pissed off, to happy (approaching ecstatic) back to pissed off. All in the space of a few weeks. A buddy of mine from back home and I drove from Denver to Vermont for Christmas of 1975 (a story which will be told here, someday) and as we were crossing the windswept icy wastes of Kansas (for such it was in mid-December back then, probably still is) we heard on the radio the announcement of the very last F-4 to leave Udorn. With sound and everything.

The sound of those two J79s coming over the air waves was not much comfort to me. Though the same sound would thrill me no end in years to come. But I was young(ish) and truth be told, not all that bright in many things in those days of yore.

Eventually. one bleak February day in 1976, I left the frozen snow-drifted hills and fields of Vermont and was deposited at Naha, Okinawa, in the middle of the night, on the other side of the world. Where I waited many hours for transport to my home for the next few months. That barracks you see outlined in yellow in the opening photo.

I say for a few months because at some time in the near future we would all be moved to another barracks adjacent to radar hill. A barracks identical in layout to the one above but no longer there. Seems there have been many changes on the base since I left in 1978. Of course, much has changed everywhere since 1978, hasn't it?

Life in the barracks was not all that bad. We were one man to a room (or woman but in those days the ladies had their own barracks, no co-ed facilities in those days), we had a big refrigerator, desk and chair and a rack (aka "bed") one each. I swear my rack was from World War I. But I could have been wrong.

Now Juvat, in his most recent posttalked about the typhoon evacuations we were subject to during typhoon season. Which runs mostly from May to October, thereabouts. I'm not a meteorologist though I did have a semester in college. Which means I can spell meteorologist if you spot me the "meteor" and the "ologist."

But (wait for it) I digress...

Normally when a typhoon was announced it was every man for himself, chaos reigned as people fought over beer in the package store and...

No, that was a movie I watched a few nights ago. And it was about zombies, not typhoons. But again, I (drum roll please) digress...

First thing to take care of was the aircraft. In those days we had two squadrons of F-4Ds, one squadron of F-4Cs and a squadron of RF-4Cs. According to my source for these kind of things, the squadrons when I was there were -

  • 12th Tactical Fighter Squadron (F-4Ds)
  • 44th Tactical Fighter Squadron (F-4Ds)
  • 67th Tactical Fighter Squadron (F-4Cs)
  • 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (RF-4Cs)

I didn't work on the reconnaissance birds, just the fighters. It was enough to keep a number of fine young Americans busy, 24/7 and 365 (366) as they say. Myself being one.

Now as Juvat told you, some of the birds would fly off to the north, some would stay home. Those for which we had room and those which were (for one reason or another) not flyable. There were always a few of those around. Hangar queens we called them (but not around their crew chiefs, remember this story gentle reader?)

Now getting some of those birds into the hangars was interesting. Of course, there were never enough crew chiefs around to marshal the aircraft, outside the hangars they would be operating tractors pulling jets with tow bars. Once in the hangar, human strength would be used to jockey aircraft into every little space available. One time, some genius decided that our shop people (from WCS) would "help" marshal aircraft as part of typhoon preparations.

Some of these guys spent their entire lives in the shop, never venturing onto the flight line where the jets roared and wrench turners did their thing. No, the shop guys were all about radar mock-ups, test equipment and air conditioning. Not for them the sweaty world of the flight line. Except this one time.

Before going further we need a picture.


Now the picture is of the tail area of the mighty Phantom. I call your attention to that protuberance circled in yellow on the left. That is the hind-most piece of the mighty Rhino. It is called a dump mast. There are three on the Phantom, that one circled in yellow and one on each wing (the left one is in the orange square, barely discernable.)

These dump masts are used by our intrepid air crews when they are returning home. Now an aircraft is a finicky thing, they don't like being landed when they are too heavy. One thing which can help an aircraft get down to landing weight is to dump excess fuel. Through those dump masts.

Now keep three things in mind for this next bit:
  1. Inexperienced non-flight line types helping move jets
  2. The dump mast on the tail sticks out
  3. Dump masts are used to dump jet fuel
So there you have it, let's see what happens next.

So Airman First Class (A1C) Schmuckatelli is told off to "watch the tail of this bird as we swing it into place" - A1C Schmuckatelli is (I remind you) a "shop guy," a "mock-up weenie," a fellow little exposed to actual aircraft.

So he is intently watching the tail of one F-4 as it approaches the tail of a second F-4. Me and a select few others are moving other crap around in order to fit more jets into the hangar. As we are doing this we hear Schmuckatelli yelling, "you're good, keep coming, you're good" then a loud sound of metal tearing metal.

"Oh shit, oh dear!" we all exclaim in unison as we see where once there were two fine and perfect F-4 dump masts on two fine and semi-perfect F-4s (if they were perfect they would be "up north") there are now one twisted and sad looking dump mast and on the other bird a hole. Yes, a hole where the dump mast used to be.

Remember number 3 above? Yes, dump masts are used to dump fuel. There is a valve inside which is opened to dump the fuel. What happens if you tear the dump mast off? Well, if the valve goes as well as the dump mast, there ain't nothing to prevent the taxpayer funded JP-4 jet fuel from issuing forth from the jet. Leastwise that's how it was explained to me.

So A1C Schmuckatelli had broken two F-4s and caused jet fuel to issue forth onto the floor of a hangar packed with jets and other metal things. Some of those metal things were in the process of being moved. Dragged in some cases. Dragging metal things on concrete can cause sparks. We were in the presence of "this is not good, this could end badly." (Truth be told, the more I thought about this incident, I'm not sure how much fuel, if any, was spilled. I may be remembering this wrong and confusing this with another incident where fuel was spilled, lots of fuel. Call it artistic license and it's my story and this is how I choose to tell it. Others may remember it differently.)

Fortunately we did have adult supervision on scene in the form of grizzled old sergeants who had "been there, done that," they immediately shooed most of us out of the hangar and quickly got the leaking fuel situation under control.

The effort to patch up the jets, clean up the spilled fuel and continue to move jets into the hangar was accomplished. Took a little longer than usual, was messier than usual but it got done.

Cost the taxpayer a pretty penny I'm sure. The upside was that we WCS weenies were never invited to play in any reindeer games aircraft marshaling efforts ever again. We didn't really mind. After all, we'd rather be hunkered down in the barracks, drinking beer, playing pinochle and waiting for the typhoon.

It's what we did when we were young.

I'm not sure whatever happened to Schmuckatelli. Didn't think to ask.

There's some things you're better off not knowing.

If you catch my meaning.


  1. "Oh shit, oh dear!" we all exclaim in unison...

    A GREAT, all-purpose, utilitarian phrase suitable for deployment in all sorts of situations. One of my personal faves from the wayback, still in use today.

    Once again, I'm reminded of the Ol' Man's advice: "stay away from airplanes."

    1. Aircraft can be sneaky barstewards, in the air AND on the ground.

  2. I too survived a fair number of typhoons that struck Okinawa. I was there from 1983-1986. We were all crew members on-board the RC-135's there. Once a typhoon formed up in the Pacific, there would be three groups of people identified:

    1. The crew-members who would accompany the jet to safer environs. Because there was insufficient hanger space for the big birds, we would beat-feet to the Philippines to wait out the meteorological disaster hitting Okinawa.

    2. The support crew. These guys would prepare the "typhoon kits" these would include all the latest intell, along with maps and other assorted stuff necessary to fly missions out of the Philippines, should it become necessary. Typically, these guys would frantically call their wives to make a mad dash to the video store and package store to stock up on supplies.

    3. These intrepid men and women would be the crew that was slated to remain on-duty in-place. You see, when we were not flying around making holes in the sky, we would be processing whatever was collected at the ground station at Torii Station. Theirs was by far the saddest of the plights, instead of drinking jungle-juice drinks with some cute Filipino on their laps, or binge-watching whatever video tapes they were able to get their hands on through a self-induced alcoholic haze, they would typically have to spend 24-48 hours with nothing to do, and nothing to eat but some Vietnam era MRE's. As you might well imagine, they would spend a great deal of their time plotting the demise of all those fortunate enough to be in group 1.

    1. Hahahahahahaha!

      Well put Bill, well put. Group 3 is no doubt the group I would wind up in.

      I should have realized that you spent time on Okinawa. For those not in the know, Bill and I served together in Germany.

      Nice of you to stop by! (I think you have commented before, but advancing old age makes me forget things. What?)

    2. Yeah, and notice which way they evac'd. Clark. I may be wrong, but I'm pretty sure we never evac'd to Clark. Kwang Ju, yes. Kunsan, Yes. Taegu, Yes. Osan, Yes. Clark? No Way!

    3. I don't recall our birds ever going to Clark for a typhoon. Ever.

  3. On a ship everyone gets to go.
    Typically, the routine does change some.
    Step one is something like:
    When you're worried,
    or in doubt.
    Run in circles,
    scream and shout.

    The one deployment I enjoyed to WestPac coincided with the typhoon season.
    We were diverted before we ever reached our first port of call.
    That entailed having an underway refueling.
    It also involved doing so in seas on the fringes of an major storm.
    Let's just say the decks were awash and some folks got their feet wet.

    1. "the decks were awash and some folks got their feet wet"

      Uh yeah, I would think so.

      Being in a typhoon while on a can? No thanks!

  4. Life in the barracks was not all that bad. We were one man to a room

    Should have went Army, and enjoyed a 40 man tent with two inadequate stoves, in a German winter.

    1. I know Air Force guys from Okinawa who experienced that in a Korean winter during Team Spirit, I never got to do that in the Air Force.

      I have however slept in pup tents in my re-enacting days. Never in a German winter though.

      There are many reasons I didn't join the Army, but the big one is that I had recruiters lying to me when I was interested in joining.

      Not a surprise but I knew they were lying and they knew that I knew. And they didn't really care. Oh well.

    2. Chitose AB Hokkaido Japan. Open bay Quonset hut. 1 coal stove. No coal. Japanese Winter.

    3. Okay, you win Juvat.

      Unless someone out there who reads the blog was on the Russian Front.

    4. Does the Gulf of Sakhalin count. Sarge?
      Even in June it felt like winter.

    5. @ well-seasoned fool/

      LOL. Our Squadron spent two.whole.weeks in 40-man tents in Northern Italy in Dec in the muck and the mire at an old WW II abandoned runway "proving" a NATO "bare-base" operating concept--complete with slit-trenches and piss-tubes and all that--no walk in the park--two weeks was more than enough, let alone an entire winter!

    6. Skip - Gulf of Sakhalin definitely counts!

    7. Virgil - "40-man tents in Northern Italy in Dec" Yup, that's pretty cold.

      "Slit trenches and piss tubes" I think puts you in the top 5 crappiest winter accommodations. Don't know how that compares with a tincan in the Gulf of Sakhalin though. I'm pretty damn sure I don't want to experience either!

    8. Does the Gulf of Sakhalin count. Sarge?
      Even in June it felt like winter.

      Heh. See the label "Wakkanai" at EIP. On a clear day we could see Sakhalin across the straits from the air station. It wasn't all THAT bad if you were lucky enough to have Terra Firma under yer feet... which is an advantage we in the "Junior Service" had over our Navy brethren.

      As far as sleeping in tents goes... the folks who spent time (I might should say "did time") in the USAF tactical aircraft control world can match you one-for-one when it comes to "tent stories." I managed to avoid that semi-wonderful world by extreme great good fortune.

    9. I went back and read one of your Wakkanai posts the other day (I do believe there was a link in a comment) and speaking of winter only counts when one is sleeping in a tent. Or perhaps getting one's feet wet on board a destroyer in the far north / far south.

      Having experienced 40 below zero (F) in my home state, being cold is something I grok.

      The tactical control folks are in a class all by themselves. Only PJs are crazier. (And I mean that in a GOOD way!)

  5. It always amazed me that an aircraft with 90 seconds of internal fuel (on burner) required a fuel dump system... I never heard of an F-4 excess fuel! I remember on the Midway the F-4N's would launch, tank, fly to station, tank, do their mission, tank, return to the boat, tank, and recover, after which they were fueled in preparation for the next flight. Man, those J-79's were thirsty!

    1. There are times when full burner is bad. They're generally few and far between but they're there. Like when an engine exploded and damaged the other limiting it to slightly less than mil power. Fortunately this occurred almost directly overhead the field. Getting the jet down fast was the plan. The dump switch came in handy.

    2. I recall on Okinawa seeing the Phantoms dumping fuel nearly every day.

    3. Should have asked Juvat, how far away was the range for Kadena? That would make a difference yes?

    4. I'm not sure. I almost got to drop bombs from the F-15, but the mission got cancelled by direct call from the PACAF commander to the SOF as we were taking the runway. I think it was on Okinawa, but I'm not positive of that. If that's so, fuel would not have been an issue. But the only time I've ever heard of anyone dumping gas was in an emergency. There were some restrictions involved, minimum altitudes etc. And in general we pilots preferred to use the burners to consume fuel.

    5. Makes sense.

      Going to burner is more fun anyway, right?

    6. Around the boat, at night, you wanna be fat. Stuff happens. The spare runway is parked well over the horizon. Sometimes very far over the horizon. There's almost always a tanker or two airborne, and a manned spare on the deck. Almost always being the important part of that phrase. And it's night, right? Stuff happens. So you work pretty hard to stay fat as long as possible. But you can only be so heavy coming aboard. So sometime between leaving the marshal stack and being pretty sure stuff isn't gonna happen you dump down in an effort to cross the ramp at max trap. So a good bit of gas gets dumped at sea.

    7. Yeah, there's rules and there's physics. One can be violated, the other, not.

  6. E-3 with a private room??? Figures... sigh... The NAVY had E-5/E-6s four to a room at Kadena thank you very much... Sounds to me like some pretty lousy leadership there. NEVER put a shop weenie around and airplane without an adult close.

    1. I had a private room, as an E-5.
      It was at Balboa Hospital and I had Rubella.
      The isolation ward is a lonely place.


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